One ring to find them?

Businesses thrive in central locations. Theater districts attract restaurants and bars. Malls and downtowns are predicated on concentration. Customers like to shop in neighborhoods. How do we create commercial neighborhoods on the Web?

In the mid 1990s, a 17-year-old Oregonian named Sage Weil created the WebRing. It’s a technology that allows a group of kindred sites to insert a link on their pages that allows visitors to go from page to page without traveling back to a central site. I learned about rings when my friend George Butko, a 3-D photography buff, directed me to one such ring to explain the workings of a stereo camera that I had inherited from my dad.

Investigating what seemed like a brilliant idea, I came across a December 2001 article in Salon that explained why webrings have not become as wildly successful as the current favorite way of finding content on the web, the search engine. The gist of the article is that Weil sold the technology to a small Oregon firm called Starseed, which was acquired by GeoCities, which was in turn acquired by Yahoo. Yahoo found the webring’s decentralized model incompatible with its own need to drive trafffic — and thus advertising — back to its own site. After a rebellion by the old webring community, Yahoo sold the technology back to Tim Killeen, an engineer involved during the Starseed era.

James Huggins, unofficial historian of the WebRing saga, taught me more. A posting on the Travel Notes e-zine pointed to sites where web masters can acquire different webring technologies. I couldn’t find a whole lot written about webrings recently. I guess they’re not “hot.”

Yet many thousands of rings exist to connect web pages catering to all sorts of specialized interest groups. I wonder whether new ways to distribute advertising can give webrings greater commercial clout. This may already be occurring. I’ll snoop around some more and report back at a later date.

Tom Abate
January 3, 2005